A day to love. Cycling’s elite level loss


14th February, a day dedicated to love and joy – Valentine’s Day, the same day in 2004 when legendary climber, Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner Marco Pantani died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose after being in and out of a deep depression for several years. Italian legend Felice Gimondi, one of his mentors, said at the time: For years, Marco was in the eye of the cycling storm after being world No, 1. He then withdrew into himself. He was alone.

Two months prior to Pantani’s death one of his peers, Spanish climber Jose-Maria Jimenez, died of a heart attack at 32 in a Madrid psychiatric hospital after a long struggle with depression and an apparent cocaine addiction. His former teammate, Spanish great Miguel Indurin, alluded to Jimenez’s depression in saying, “when things were going well, they went really well, but when things went bad, they went very bad.”

Cycling, Depression, Suicide, Valentine’s Day

Elite cyclists and teams spend thousands getting help with their physical training, but rarely do they think about spending on their mental health. It’s only when things start to go wrong that they might think about getting help.

Canadian cyclist, Clara Hughes, knows how deep a depressed athlete can sink after physical setbacks. Clara retired from racing in 2010, after two decades in which she earned Olympic medals in both cycling and speed-skating. Upon retirement, Clara became a spokesperson for Bell Canadas Let’s Talk campaign, which is focused on supporting mental health-related programs and research. She said that her mental health problems began after medaling in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Feeling isolated and fixated on training. Clara put on weight and would cry every day. She trained even harder, but she felt even worse. The hole was dug and I was piling the dirt on top of myself, she said, it wasn’t until her doctor raised the subject of depression that Clara reached out to friends and family, and then got the professional help she needed before starting to feel better.

There was a similar trend with Bradley Wiggins. Following winning his first set of Olympic medals on the track during the 2004 Athens Games. Wiggins became disenchanted.

“I thought I was it after winning those medalshe said at the time. “So for a while, I was going to parties and enjoying it, but once that started wearing off I found I wasn’t looking forward to racing my bike. I just sat around drinking all day.”

Wiggins said he would go to his local pub and steadily get through a dozen pints of beer by the end of the day.

“I look back and think, what a horrible place to have been.”

He said he only stopped the drinking when shocked back to reality by the birth of his son in 2005, but he remained disillusioned with his pro cycling career.

“It was a job. I just went through the motions and went home again”.

bradley wiggins, Valentine’s Day

Wiggins went on to become the leader of Team Sky, the British cycling team that started to change the face of the professional peloton. Where one of the most valued staff members is Dr. Steve Peters, the team psychiatrist and head of medicine. After winning the 2012 Tour, Wiggins thanked Peters for opening my eyes on how to approach my worries and fears, and for simply being the world expert on common sense. Peters work has helped not only the pro team riders in recent years but also the British national team cyclists that have taken 16 Olympic gold medals in the past decade. Sky team boss Sir Dave Brailsford says that Peters is the best appointment he has ever made.

Depression is a common mental disease that affects millions across the globe. Dr Chad Asplund an American sports medical expert, wrote in 2004 that athletes at the highest levels may experience failure or a decline in performance for the first time, and they may not have the skills to cope with these changes.

He added, Depression is often triggered by loss, and athletes may experience many forms of loss [including] transition from sport to life-after-sport [where] the lack of coping skills leads to low self-esteem, diminished sense of self-worth, and ultimately depression. This could go some way in explaining the depression suffered by Pantani and Jimenez after their careers fell to pieces (partly due to drug use), and also Clara Hughes’s state of mind.

Talking about her feelings after retiring from elite-level sport at age 40, Clara wrote in a personal blog: Somehow I thought after quitting sport that life would be a little easier. [But] thoughts of unrepeatable negativity scream out loud when I sit with myself too long.  And now these shouts of abuse are beginning to follow me into time spent with others. For some reason, I thought these verbal cues were a result of trying to be better at something. That something was sport [which] is now gone. Now it’s just me. No pressure, no expectations, no need to be fast, good, strong or to even improve. Yet I can’t let go of this idea that I always need to be more than I am. And it is eating me alive.

She added, in some ways, life as a former athlete is like that of an addict. The comparison is quite normal to make of life as it was before with big goals, big dreams and big focus. In retrospect, it seems easier, but in reality, it was torture. Just like the thought of a drink, a hit or a bet must seem like it would sooth the void, this comparison leads to melancholy because life will never be the same.

bradley wiggins, Valentine’s Day

So cycling can improve our outlook, provide a new focus, foster or offer something to savour and a host of other protective benefits. However, we still need to deal with our ‘stuff’. For some of us, the bike might take that away. For others, starting a conversation with someone might be all we need to get help, for others seeking professional help is required. The most important thing is spotting the signs early and figuring out which method is best suited to you.

If you feel as though you need professional help, please take a look at our support page. In the UK we have hundreds of charities offering a range of free services.

Black Dog Depression